BYU has a golden opportunity this Saturday against the Texas Longhorns, and it's not one it can well afford to pass up in this brave new world of college football.
The Cougars are in their fourth year as an independent, and while BYU hasn't had a bad season during that time, it hasn't had a great one either. With all the changes coming in college football with the new playoff system as well as new autonomy for the big-time conferences, the Cougars need to make a big splash on the national scene this season.
Unfortunately, a lot of BYU's opponents didn't do the Cougars any favors last week. While Cal beat Northwestern and Virginia gave UCLA all it could handle, Central Florida lost to Penn State, Houston fell flat against UTSA, Boise State couldn't hang with Ole Miss and Utah State got embarrassed by Tennessee.
Clearly, BYU's biggest chance to make a national impact is against Texas on Saturday.
That said, the Longhorns don't get the same kind of respect as they did in the glory years. While Texas sits on the bottom edge of both major polls (No. 25 in the Coaches and No. 26 in the AP), two other teams from the Lone Star State are in the AP's Top 10: Texas A&M and Baylor. It's been awhile since anyone has talked about Texas as a strong contender for the national championship.
However, Texas is still Texas. That name still commands national respect. New head coach and former Louisville head coach Charlie Strong is eager to return the Longhorns to their former place of glory in the college football universe.
And beating BYU appears to be part of that plan.
Strong has gone well out of his way to emphasize this matchup with BYU. Strong has reportedly gotten angry when he watches film of Texas' loss to the Cougars in Provo last season. Also, he's been hanging signs with BYU as an acronym but not to stand for Brigham Young University. Rather, they say "Believe You're Unbeatable."
It appears that BYU has Texas' undivided attention.
That's actually a good thing for the Cougars. A common excuse big-name schools make for losing a game to a "lesser" opponent is that the team didn't take a team seriously or wasn't playing its best. That excuse won't fly given how much emphasis Strong has placed on this game.
Now, Texas is missing some key players. QB David Ash is out with concussion-like symptoms, and fifth-year senior center Dominic Espinosa is done for the season with a broken ankle. Safety Josh Turner and WR Daje Johnson are suspended for this game, although OL Desmond Harrison will play against the Cougars after sitting out the season-opener.
Even so, this game will be far from easy.
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is about to get his trial by fire this season as the Longhorns' defense will do everything in its power to prevent a repeat of his 259-yard rushing performance in Provo last season. There's no question Hill will have a target on his back. If the BYU offense can move the ball with that kind of intense attention on Hill, folks on a national level will pay attention.
So, what's really on the line in Austin this Saturday?
First off, BYU is unlikely to break into the new College Football Playoff this season even if it runs the table this season. Fair or not, strength of schedule is a huge part of who will get those four spots, and BYU just isn't going to be able to beat out a team from a so-called "Power 5" conference. By the same token, Hill isn't likely to win the Heisman this season for the same reasons.
Even a spot in a New Year's Day bowl isn't guaranteed with a perfect season, although it is a possibility.
What is on the line, however, is national relevancy. In this brave new world of college football with the walls separating the haves and have-nots becoming more ominous by the day, BYU must prove that it belongs in the same league as teams like Texas.
Utah State and Boise State failed to send that message last week when they lost badly to Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Now, the Cougars probably won't have to beat Texas to finish ranked in the final Top 25. An 11-1 or 10-2 season plus a bowl win will probably do the trick. That said, no other game on BYU's 2014 schedule has more potential than this game at Texas.
Any sort of national relevancy and experience BYU can pick up this season will come in handy as it faces Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan in 2015.
While this isn't a "must-win" game, it is undoubtedly the Cougars' biggest opportunity for national recognition. In this new era of college football, BYU can't afford to let too many of these kind of opportunities go to waste.
Lafe Peavler is a staff sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler.